July 1st, 2011

The Hero’s Journey: A Thumbnail Sketch of Real Life

Writers In The Storm is thrilled to welcome this week’s Sensational Summer guest blogger, Connie Flynn!

Connie has published ten novels and several short stories. Her werewolf series was recently reissued by Back In Print and is available on Amazon.com. Two of her Harlequin books are scheduled for re-release in July.

Additionally, Connie co-founded the Bootcamp for Novelists Online and teaches a novel writing series at Phoenix College .

By Connie Flynn

When I taught the online course Applying The Hero’s Journey, one of my students emailed me during our final discussion about her experience.

The Hero’s Journey showed me a better tool to use in analyzing my stories, especially since I write without outlines. When, in the beginning of this course, we were asked to write a little something about ourselves, I read more into the simple assignment and choked. Then, while reading The Writer’s Journey, some real inside stuff started happening. I suddenly realized that I have already overcome some big black moments in life. I became self-involved, got writing and lost the focus on the assignments. So, I am still getting used to this new Special World. Maybe I did not learn what was intended, but I have new tools to practice using to hone my writing skills.

This student’s experience was similar to my own. The first time I read The Writer’s Journey (Christopher Vogler) I forgot I was reading about a writing tool. My mind kept jumping to how these archetypes and events had been and were playing out in my life.

The journey structure wasn’t invented out of thin air. The author of the original work on archetypes and the journey is Joseph Campbell and his books can be difficult to wade through, but what becomes clear as you study Vogler’s books is that Campbell’s stories
and myths spanned time and cultures. And what he discovered is that they were mostly all alike. This is because the journey structure wasn’t invented out of thin air. It is a thumbnail sketch of life itself.

We all go on some variation of the same journey and each of us plays archetypal roles for others. Instinctively, subconsciously? Who knows? All that’s apparent is that it’s true. And understanding this truth can give new life to our stories.

So back to my first read. Since my goal was to use the material in revising my story, I completed my self-exploration and went back to read it again. It bewildered me. Although it seemed to be about plot and characterization, I couldn’t figure out how to apply it to my existing plot methods, which I wasn’t ready to abandon.

On my third and fourth read, I concluded The Writer’s journey was fascinating philosophy but appeared unworkable as a storytelling foundation. When teaching it, I concentrated on providing more developed character archetypes for students to superimpose on the archetypes. While that was an interesting exercise, it didn’t make use of the rich texture
of Vogler’s structure. I simply couldn’t connect the dots between archetypes/journey stages and character development/plot structure.

I wish I could tell you that I had a dramatic insight, but I didn’t. It was just a simple click inside my mind as I was drawn to read Vogler yet again. Like that moth to the flame, it was bound to end badly. But it didn’t Then, something clicked, and that’s when I saw that the archetypes and journey stages weren’t characterization and plot
structure tools at all.

So what are they?

Placeholders. Much like the name cards at fancy dinners, the archetypes are labels for character roles and function, not the behaviors of character traits. The journey steps are about the types of events that happen, not plotting steps to be rigidly used. I began
teaching it this way and discovered that most of my students immediately grasped this altered application.

In my Bootcamp plotting course I teach a four-act structure and tell students that this structure is not the plot, it’s simply a frame for the lot. Likewise, I remind them that the plot is not the story, it’s a roadmap. Along the same line of thinking, the journey is not a frame or a plot. Structure tells you what goes where, and plot points are about the function of a scene. For instance, an inciting incident is the scene that kicks off the story.

The hero’s journey provides dramatic content for the plot points.

What do I mean by that? Well, let’s take a look at the term “inciting incident.” By itself, the term tells you nothing. It’s up to you to provide the meaning. But the term “call to adventure” does contain meaning. First off it tells you that someone or something must make the “call,” therefore a second character is needed (making the assumption that a hero is a given). The call must be about something, meaning you have to invent a purpose.
Adventure assumes stuff is happening, meaning you have to invent the happening stuff. The steps of the journey and the roles of the archetypes provide that stuff. The journey is getting dull? Throw in a threshold guardian or maybe a shapeshifter who turns out not to be who they said they were.

And so forth. The Hero’s Journey sparks ideas, generates action, tells you what characters you need. And never is it better explained than in The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.

One of the really great things about this material is that it invites you to bring fairytale thinking into your everyday stories because it challenges us to reach for the majestic
grandeur of the mythology and quest stories that lured us in as children.
What little girl hasn’t dreamed of being a secret princess? What boy didn’t want to slay dragons, if only on the football field? These stories speak to people’s secret yearnings and bring out the expectant and eager child in all of us.

Many writers think this material is mostly for paranormal, fantasy or science
fiction writers. Not true. This form can  be applied to hearth and home series romances just as successfully as to epic  fantasy. And if you learn to use it, you’ll find yourself overcoming that sometimes numb feeling you get around your writing as you try to squeeze it  into the “guidelines” of various genres of fiction. Can’t do this, can’t do
that. Must do this, must do that. What’s right? What’s wrong?

Sound familiar? Your head is spinning and that’s before you’ve even started. Plus, and sadly, it drains your creative enthusiasm. So how can applying the  journey principles put joy into your writing and drama into your book? By using  the names of the archetypes and journey stages to give you a larger arena to  your character. You character is a wife cheater? No, he’s a shapeshifter and  you can complicate things by also making him a mentor and his journey step is  to steal the elixir (in this case her forgiveness). Your heroine’s applying for  a job? No, she’s an archetypal sorceress determined to beat or outwit the threshold guardians and her journey step is crossing the threshold.

These are just small examples of how the grand language of the journey can
raise your book from the commonplace to an emotional roller coaster ride. So, I
highly recommend this material for writers of every genre.

I am offering the course this summer, beginning July 22 and if it appeals to you check out the course description and outline at http://bootcampfornovelists.com. You can also
register there if you like.

Have your read Christopher Vogler’s book? If so, what did you think? Are there books you’ve read or workshops you’ve taken that gave you that “a-ha” moment of discovery about your own writing?

No comments yet to The Hero’s Journey: A Thumbnail Sketch of Real Life

  • I have the Writer’s Journey in my reading pile, Connie. I’m soooo glad I read your blog before I dived into it. I’ll get a lot more out of it this way.

    • Jenny, My apologies for not seeing your comment sooner. Have you started reading Vogler yet? I find him fascinating each time I reread. Since I have a repeat of my course starting this week, I am rereading him again and still find depth and texture in the material. I hope you’ll let me know how it works for you — I can be reached at bootcamp4novelists@cox.net.

  • […] Our Sensational Summer guest series kicked off with a post by Kristen Lamb. Connie Flynn broke down The Hero’s Journey in a whole new way. Margie Lawson shared her 10 favorite Writing Tips. This Friday, Elizabeth Spann Craig (aka Riley […]